Pierce County’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is about to get a new gathering space.
The Rainbow Center and the Oasis Youth Center, which serve adults and youths, respectively, will open its new shared building in Tacoma in early August.
It’s the most ambitious building project the LGBT community has undertaken in Pierce County, and it reflects the new awareness, clout and alliances that have developed in long fought battles for same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination laws, as well as increased acceptance from society in general.
And, from a practical standpoint, both groups have outgrown their current spaces.
“Both of our organizations are splitting at the seams,” said Rainbow Center executive director Michelle Douglas. “We just don’t have enough room for everybody. We have more groups than we can accommodate.”
A 5-month-long fundraising campaign allowed both groups to lease and remodel a 6,000-square-foot commercial space at 2215 Pacific Ave. The Rainbow Center will use 2,000 square feet of the building and Oasis will use 3,000 square feet. The remaining 1,000 square feet will be shared space that houses computers, a kitchen and other areas.
The new location — which already has the nickname The ORC — will be open seven days a week.
“We are anticipating 1,000 visits a month combined, with 26 days of activities,” Douglas said.
The center still must raise $35,000 of the $250,000 needed to finish the buildout. In addition to monetary donations, it has received $100,000 of in-kind support, including design work from architect Amy Dedominicis. The center also will be looking for $100,000 to fund furnishings, security, a computer lab and furniture.
Right now, “We have a lot of folding chairs,” Douglas said.
The ORC isn’t a merger, but a collaboration, said Douglas and Oasis director Seth Kirby. Both agree that neither group could have accomplished the fundraising in so short a time had they acted on their own.
Two donors to the fundraising campaign were Mayor Marilyn Strickland and her husband, Patrick Erwin. Strickland said the new facility furthers the mission of the two centers and reflects the growing influence of the LGBT community.
“So many (LGBT members) I know and respect are in positions of leadership,” she said. “They have lots of allies. That’s what got my attention. Over time, you’ve seen them have a stronger and more visible presence. That visibility has helped move the needle forward.”
Stephanie McCallum isn’t a member of the LGBT community but she has been volunteering for the ORC fundraising campaign and made phone calls on behalf of last year’s marriage equality campaign. For McCallum, 33, it comes down to basic civil rights.
“It’s something I’ve always felt passionate about,” she said. “It provides an example to the next generation — to have open hearts and minds so we’re not repeating some of these injustices.”
McCallum moved to Tacoma from Portland in 2010 and was immediately impressed with the LGBT community and its allies.
“The way the (general) community has rallied around the LGBT community has really been inspiring,” she said.
Despite the gains of the LGBT community, the new center is still needed, said McCallum, who’s running to be on its board.
“Until there is absolute equality, there is always going to be a need,” she said.
One of those people in need is Phillip Bailey. Bailey, 56, was an occasional user of the Rainbow Center after he moved to Tacoma from Washington, D.C., in 2006. Since he lost his job as a customer service rep last year, he’s been making two or three visits a week.
“It’s invaluable,” Bailey said. “I was used to those services (in Washington, D.C.) Until I found those services at the Rainbow Center, I was lost.”
He uses the facility’s computer lab to look for work and uses vouchers for mental health services. He also attends Mpowerment meetings, a social group for gay men. The group holds discussions and hosts potlucks, movie nights and outings.
“It gets me out of the house,” he said. “I get to meet people.”
LaVarr Singleton might one day use the Rainbow Center, but right now the 21-year-old Tacoma Community College student is a member of Oasis. It was five years ago Saturday that the then-Foss High School student discovered Oasis at Out in the Park, Tacoma’s gay pride celebration.
“I was caught off guard,” he said. “I had never been around that many gay people before. It made me come out of my shell.”
Singleton had known he was gay and been out since a student at Jason Lee Middle School. Though his friends there were supportive, they also were straight.
“I didn’t have anyone to talk to,” he said. “They didn’t understand what I was going though.”
Oasis changed Singleton’s life.
“I made so many friends — people who I call my family now,” he said.
In his five years there, he’s attended workshops on sexual assault and HIV prevention and now speaks in the community on behalf of Oasis.
Singleton supports the new public location for Oasis but realizes it comes with risks.
“There are pros and cons,” he said, “but we all want it. We didn’t want it to be a secret any longer — like we’re in the closet. We wanted to be free.”
The LGBT community has never tried, let alone accomplished, anything as ambitious as the ORC, said Kirby, who attributes the success to an increase in community partnerships and support in the past few years.
“We’ve really seen the community come together,” Kirby said. “It’s incredible to see it happening.”
Though developments in the LGBT community have lately been happening quickly, Douglas said the seeds were sown decades ago.
“We were incredibly lucky to have people here who imagined what this community could become, what equality could look like and what it means to be visible,” she said. “There is a growing understanding of who the LGBT community is. It’s your neighbors, it’s your co-workers, it’s your friends.”Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@ thenewstribune.com